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Blume, Peter

Blume, Peter

(b. 27 October 1906 in Smorgon, Russia; d. 30 November 1992 in New Milford, Connecticut), artist whose meticulously crafted, brilliantly colored paintings are commentaries on the political and social realities of his day or serve as allegories of the regeneration of life.

Blume was born in a small town in Russia. He was one of three children of Harry Blume, a garment worker, and Rose Gopin, a homemaker. The family emigrated to the United States in 1911, settling in Brooklyn where Blume attended public school. Blume became a naturalized U.S. citizen in either 1917 or 1921. Blume left high school in his early teens to work at a newsstand, then in a jewelry factory, and finally in a lithography plant. At about age fifteen he enrolled full-time in art classes given at the Educational Alliance in Manhattan, attending from 1919 to 1924. Occasionally he sat in on sketch classes offered at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design and also studied briefly at the Art Students League. When he was eighteen—now self-supported, doing commercial lithography and engraving—Blume rented his own studio in Manhattan.

In 1926 the artist acquired his first dealer, Charles Daniel, through whose gallery he made his first sale: the semi-abstract still life Cyclamen (1925). With the money earned from the sale of this work, he took off to New England and painted several canvases in the austere precisionist style, incorporating local settings. Maine Coast (1926), with figures posed ambiguously within and outside an old house, prefigures the dreamlike narratives with hidden meanings characteristic of his later painting. Winter, New Hampshire (1927); The White Factory (1928); and The Bridge (1928) — inspired by the Queensboro Bridge in New York—with their immaculately defined architectural forms, have been compared to the work of his contemporaries Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth.

Back in New York City, where Blume frequently sketched along the Hudson River piers, he began work on Parade (1930), his first large canvas. The composition is an unlikely combination of allusions to riverside industrial sites and to the armored figures that fascinated him in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval galleries. The face of the man with a lifted visor is that of the editor and critic Malcolm Cowley, Blume’s longtime friend. The painting was the featured work in his first solo exhibition, held at the Daniel Gallery in 1930.

After a visit to Cowley in Sherman, Connecticut, in 1929, Blume established a studio there; he lived in Sherman the rest of his life. In the spring of 1930 he went on an automobile trip to Charleston, South Carolina, stopping along the way in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Setting up a temporary studio in Charleston, he began South of Scranton, the painting that established his name. The work is a composite of the images that caught his eye on his trip: slag heaps above a Scranton street, a locomotive, and in the background a view of Charleston Harbor and a battleship at anchor, with young men doing calisthenics on its deck. As in Parade, the artist contrasted the vulnerability of human beings with the harshness of their machine-age environment.

Always a slow, painstaking worker (in the manner of early Netherlandish masters), Blume finished South of Scranton in 1931, the year he married Grace Douglas Gibbs Craton on 9 March. It was shown at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh three years later and was awarded first prize. Many viewers, puzzled and antagonized by its jumble of images, its arbitrary scale, and strange lighting, proclaimed that it revealed the sinister influence of modern European art.

A Guggenheim fellowship, awarded in 1932–1933 and renewed in 1936, enabled Blume to travel to Europe. Repelled by Mussolini’s Fascist government, he began The Eternal City, on which he worked from 1934 to 1937. It was exhibited at the Julian Levy Galleries in Manhattan in 1937. Perhaps his best-known painting, it is another surreal assemblage of finely wrought details, in a setting that is unmistakably the Roman Forum. From the midst of the ruins springs—like a jack-in-the-box—the head of Mussolini painted a startling acid green. In 1947 Blume was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design.

With The Rock (1948), a new theme entered Blume’s art. Developed from some 500 preliminary drawings, it took seven years to complete. Images of a blasted rock, a burned-out building, and figures working on a new construction (a visual allusion to Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house Blume had once visited) combine to symbolize—in his own words—“the continual process of man’s rebuilding out of a devastated world.” He addressed this theme of regeneration in varying ways from then on. Thus, Passage to Etna (1956) is a metaphor for continuity, expressed in the contrast between ancient ruins and daily life in a Sicilian town. The painter had visited Sicily in 1952; four years later he was back in Italy as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. From sketches done there he completed Tasso’s Oak (1958): a dead tree on the Janiculum hill, under which old women sit knitting. Opposed to these symbols of aging and decay are the one tree branch still in leaf and the young lovers who run hand-in-hand up the hill.

Blume’s Winter (1964), finished in Rome where Blume had returned to the American Academy, is another narrative of death and resurrection. In a forbidding rocky landscape, sprigs of foliage are visible amid the granite out-croppings, and birds of many colors flock in the snow: life and sound in contrast to frozen silence. Still later he worked out the continuity of life theme in the Seasons series of the 1960s—regeneration in nature; in Recollections of the Flood (1969)—the restoration of a work of art after the Florence flood of 1966; and in The Metamorphoses (1979)—mythological transformations.

In addition to easel paintings, Blume did murals under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury Department for post offices in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania; Rome, Georgia; and Geneva, New York. Completed between 1937 and 1940, all three were based on local landscapes. He also worked in watercolor and produced a large body of pencil drawings, generally as preparatory studies for his canvases. In the 1970s he turned to sculpture and did a series of elegantly finished, mannerist-inspired figures, Bronzes About Venus.

Blume, who was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1951, died in a nursing home in New Milford after a stroke. He had had no children.

Blume has mistakenly been classified as an American surrealist. Unlike the surrealists, however, he did not set out to shock or to reveal the unconscious, and by the 1930s his own eclectic style had been formed. A true original, he remained unaffected by succeeding trends in American art.

An article on Blume appeared in Current Biography 1956. There is a brief entry on the artist in the Grove Dictionary of Art, vol. 4 (1996). Additional information on his career and analyses of his work are found in Paintings and Drawings in Retrospect, 1925 to 1964 (1964), a catalog of an exhibition held jointly at the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, and the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; Peter Blume (1968), a catalog from the Kennedy Galleries, New York, with text by Frank Getlein; and Peter Blume (1976), the catalog of a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. An obituary by the critic Roberta Smith is in the New York Times (1 Dec. 1992).

Eleanor F. Wedge

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